Friday, November 2, 2007

The Vegetarian's Dilemma

One of the things that people have found most strange about me and my travels - second only to asking why a girl from Pittsburgh (after, with furrowed brows, they recollect that Pittsburgh and indeed all of Pennsylvania are quite decidedly inland locations) is studying fishing - is that I don't eat meat. While the concept of vegetarianism has become fairly common in the US and particularly in liberal western Massachusetts, it is fairly unusual in Iceland and Denmark. The lead scientist on the Icelandic shrimp survey seemed positively appalled that I had not tasted Icelandic lamb, and I've been able to redeem myself from my meatless oddity among quite a number of fishermen only because I still eat seafood. I've been thinking about food choices a lot recently, spurred partly because of this response and partly because an inherent question for me in studying fisheries is thinking about how fish fit in with overall food supply. After writing about the question of lobsters and ethical eating, I bought a copy of The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan, which has started me thinking much more coherently about that basic question he begins with: What should we eat for dinner?

The book is basically a personal journalistic investigation of the US food supply, in three separate sections - first, the industrial food supply, following government-subsidized petrochemically-fertilized midwestern corn through CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) and processing plants to a McDonald's meal, then moving on to the organic food movement, both the large-scale "industrial organic" Whole Foods variety and the small-scale local and self contained "beyond organic" farm, and ending with an odd but interesting experiment in foraging for a meal by hunting and gathering the ingredients in Northern California. The first section on the critical flaw of oil dependence in America's industrial corn production and meat-producing industry is sufficiently shocking to rival the century-earlier exposé in Upton Sinclair's The Jungle (and Pollan's writing style is far more enjoyable), and the investigation of how "organic" has come to mean something more like "a little bit better for the environment" than "actually sustainable and environmentally-sound" is an important reminder to people (myself included) who like the idea of picking up "free-range" eggs or "organic" milk and thinking no further. By the end, the book becomes less a journalistic investigation and more a personal exploration (both actual and philosophical) into questions of food source and choice. Though I definitely recommend the book to anyone who has ever tried to decipher supermarket labels, it by no means is the definitive source on food in America. It has gained a lot of publicity, and as a result also a fair amount of criticism that it doesn't live up to its purported excellence, but I think what's most important about it is that it encourages an honest, thoughtful investigation of where our food actually comes from. As a friend of mine who knows far more about food and has seen much more of the non-American world than I have just wrote about on her blog, the US is singularly unaware of how food gets to our tables.

For me, the question of why I don't eat meat surfaced again and again throughout the book. If anything made from standard subsidized and fertilized corn fields is contributing to climate change by demanding petrochemically-derived fertilizers, water pollution from excess fertilizer runoff, and perhaps even the US's oil-driven military exploits, I would probably do better to swear off high fructose corn syrup (i.e. every sweet processed food) than Icelandic lamb, which converts grass, a nutrient-supply humans can't digest, into the meat that has sustained Iceland for generations, and is the ultimate free-range animal - the farmers set them lose to the mountains in the spring and don't gather them again until the fall. Iceland in particular, and also to a large extent Denmark (and most of Europe), have very different food supply systems than the US. In Iceland, it is arguably much more sustainable to eat animal products grown off of the land that is not capable of producing crops humans can eat directly than to import food from all over the world or eat fruits and vegetables grown in greenhouses. Denmark, though less drastically different from the US, as a whole treats its animals better than a US CAFO - my milk, for instance, comes from right here in Hirtshals, and I see the cows grazing in the fields when I ride my bike along the coast.

The Icelandic sheep I failed to eat. They have a pretty good life, grazing along the coastline in Vestmannaeyjar in pretty much one of the most beautiful places I've ever been.

My problem with eating meat is not in the concept of using an animal for food - I want to treat animals humanely and I want to generally eat sustainably, which in part of my reasoning against eating meat means eating lower in the food chain, but grass-fed animals that are raised on farms that treat the animals well (as the farmer Joel Salatin says in Pollan's book, letting a chicken act like a chicken) seem like an acceptable and yes, even sustainable, part of a balanced diet. My problem is that I only want to eat meat when I know where it came from, how it lived, and how it was killed. My eventual questioning of where meat comes from eventually brought me to deciding to call myself a vegetarian, which I consider more of a precautionary convenience than a philosophy. When I first began eating in a college dining hall, I quickly stopped eating the meat there, more for quality than for ethics (I ate various fried versions of chicken for a while until I realized that just because it seemed more appetizing because I couldn't see the meat didn't make it any better), and soon I was only eating meat at Hillel's kosher Friday night dinners and when I went home over breaks. After discovering that it was possible to go months without eating meat, it was easy to start asking myself why I was eating it at all. For a while, I limited myself to kosher or "organic" and "free-range" meat, but it wasn't a very convenient way of eating - one of Pollan's critiques of vegetarianism is that it inconveniences others, but I've generally found that it's more polite to simply label myself as a non-meat-eater than to ask a slew of questions about whether a cow was kept inside in overcrowded pens and how it was slaughtered before sitting down to a meal. For a while after I had essentially stopped eating meat, I resisted the term vegetarian, which tends to imply a much more determined anti-meat philosophy than I actually hold, but it similarly makes for a much more awkward conversation to try to explain my nuanced views on eating meat than to just tell someone I'm vegetarian.

But ideally, it should be possible to change the way food is produced so that I wouldn't find it necessary to not eat meat - which, as Pollan points out, does not mean I'm eating food that is any better for the environment. Changing the food production system in the US to a more integrated, more "natural" system that uses energy and resources more efficiently by recycling waste (manure as fertilizer, pest insects as food for chickens, etc.) and avoiding non-renewable energy inputs would make food more expensive, but also reduce the overall costs to the economy (from farm subsidies to healthcare costs brought on by unhealthy diets to the many costs of oil dependence). This is one of the few arenas where it is possible for individuals to really change society, since everyone has to get food from somewhere, and choosing food from local, sustainable sources has the added benefit of being not just good for the environment but good for your health and usually a whole lot tastier too.

In the mean time, though I've sometimes questioned whether I should keep eating seafood when it's often not caught from sustainable fish stocks or from low on the food chain, the fact that much of the world's seafood supply still comes from wild stocks "hunted" by fishermen seems an important reason to keep eating seafood. Though most people don't know where their food comes from, when living in a fishing community, seeing the boats in the harbor, and sometimes even buying your dinner directly from a fisherman coming back to port at the end of the day, the connection isn't quite so distant. And, much the same way grass-fed animals take a resource we can't eat and turn it into something we can, most wild-caught fish are taking resources people can't (or won't) eat - algae, krill, small crustaceans and fish - and turning them into something we can. Though it is certainly important to make sure we don't catch too many fish to keep them from being able to replenish the population, fish are one of the few foods we have left where we regularly remember to think about where they come from, and that the answer is from nature and not from the supermarket. (This is also part of why I find it ridiculous to suggest that a more "sustainable" way of eating fish is to substitute wild with farm-raised fish. Although it's too complicated to go into here, like in agriculture, there are a variety of methods of raising farmed fish that determine whether the operation is good for both the fish and the environment. The context, however, is far different from agriculture, both because of the difference in the ocean versus terrestrial environment and because we have not yet domesticated fish. I suspect that this suggestion is based on the false conceit that the ocean is some kind of "last wilderness" that we must preserve rather than recognizing that the ocean's ecosystems, like the rest of the world, have been profoundly affected by human influence.)

These cod were brought to the dock on the fishing boat that had caught them that day just the night before I saw them sold at the 7am fish auction in Hirtshals. And if that's not fresh enough for you, some people go down to the docks and buy the fish directly from the fishermen right as they pull into the harbor.

Right now, fish are the only animal I eat as food because I know where they come from and how they got from the ocean to me (also because they're the only animal I've killed myself, which I'm fairly sure I will have to do before I could go back to eating any other meat). But it doesn't have to be that way, and I like to think that if people start asking about their food before they eat, sustainability can become a more natural part what goes through our minds when we go to the grocery store - and thus also a more natural part of what goes into deciding how to produce our food.


adele said...

I want to thank you for making thought-provoking posts on the subject of sustainability and ethical eating. Like I said, I'm still sorting through my own feelings on the subject. It is sometimes difficult to reach a consensus when my mind, my stomach, and my pocketbook are all involved.

I'd really like someone to do research on the history of offal (organ meat) consumption in the US, because I'm convinced that it's connected to (or perhaps indicative of) the reasons why this society is disconnected from and doesn't respect its food.

Somewhere, somehow, offal, which is usually the most recognizably animal bits of the animal, went from being parts that should be used like any other to parts to something that could be tossed out or made into pet food because it was waste. I think that change made it easier to think of the animal not as an animal, but as an unrefined, unprocessed commodity.

When you stop thinking of a pig as an animal that will be killed, and start thinking of it as raw material for ham and bacon, well, it doesn't take long before you stop making the connection between "pig" and "honey ham sandwich" at all.

Hilary said...

That's a really interesting point. I don't know much about how various organs could be used (other than chopped liver), but since we never come in contact with them anymore it keeps people from coming up with creative ways to use them. I suspect if buying meat meant buying the whole animal, people would find things to do with more of its parts.

I'm also tempted to post a picture of cod offal, but I will resist because it's frankly, entirely unappetizing. Also, I have yet to hear about any way that fish offal is used. I've seen uses for the heads, chins, etc., but everyone (except the curious students) just throws back the organs.

john.white said...

There seems to be a disconnect between your views on sustainability and fossil-fuel dependence and commercial fishing.

Could you expand on that?